Peabodys: In the Pursuit of Excellence
Piece's Impact, Look Play Part in Winning
There is no higher honor among broadcast industry professionals than the George Foster Peabody Awards. As the director of the Peabodys, and a judge since 1990, Horace Newcomb knows what it takes for a news broadcast, documentary or television program to be recognized by this group. The awards program, established in 1940 and administered by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication, is the oldest, most prestigious honor in electronic media. In a recent interview with TVWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman, Mr. Newcomb offered insight into what makes the Peabody Awards tick.
TVWeek:: What makes winning a Peabody Award so special?
Horace Newcomb: We say that the Peabody has only one criterion across the board, and that’s excellence. I’m often asked to define that, and we realize that it’s a subjective judgment in every case. But excellence in news and journalism and documentaries comes down to the fact that we look for excellence on its own terms. What that means is that we can get a piece that doesn’t have high production values, it might be done by a small organization, and yet has major impact in the community or market, and in that case that would stand for excellence for us. Even though there might be other things that look better or are smoother or glitzier.
On the other hand, with the documentaries, certainly there are some that are aesthetically superior. They’re beautiful works; they do all sorts of in-depth analysis and they’re put together in a spectacular way. Sometimes that stands for excellence.
We’re interested, particularly, in always finding stories that have made a difference in communities; stories that sometimes break on a big level, like the Abu Ghraib story on “60 Minutes.” We saw that and immediately recognized that it was an important story—and it certainly turned out to be that way. … There was some criticism of that award, but we thought this story stood on its own. Last year we gave four awards to local television stations; they were all very different.
TVWeek: How do the Peabody judges go about making their selections each year?
Mr. Newcomb: It’s always a process of winnowing through literally hundreds of submissions. We had over 300 documentaries submitted last year; we had over 250 news stories submitted. It’s a process of comparison and making decisions. …
There are several steps. First, we have committees of faculty and students on the University of Georgia campus review maybe 30 or 40 pieces, so they’re looking within their own group. Then they make recommendations to the Peabody board. We ask them to be very, very selective and there’s usually no more than one or two that come out of their group. We’re not bound by the recommendations. We may pass over things they recommend and select things they may have rejected, because they’re comparing on a much smaller scale than we are.
TVWeek: Who are the judges?
Mr. Newcomb: Our board is 15 people, plus I have a vote. That’s really not the right term, because we do all of our deliberations in face-to-face meetings. It’s a very, very intense discussion. We have a couple of meetings, one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast, where a substantial number of the members can be present. At the end of March, the full board comes to the University of Georgia and we meet there for five days. We are locked in a conference room, we are screening materials, we’re listening to radio, our board members are taking CDs and DVDs back to their hotel rooms and reviewing materials till 2 or 3 in the morning, and we meet again at 9 the next morning to start all over. By the end of that week, we may have 100 items on our list, or maybe 150. Over the last two days, we start winnowing it down. There have never been more than 36 awards given in any year.
TVWeek: Would you say the committee works like a jury?
Mr. Newcomb: That’s probably a good analogy, although I think the difference would be that this is a group of 16 people with exceptionally strong minds, lots of experience and great good will. What attracts me most about the Peabodys is that you see these people change their minds because their colleagues persuade them that something is different. It’s a real interesting process. Fortunately, we don’t have to determine guilt or innocence. We simply have to determine excellence, so we can change our minds. The process is never all or nothing.
TVWeek: What would you say to a news director who may not think his station’s work is worthy of a Peabody?
Mr. Newcomb: I get a question like that with some frequency, and I tell them that you have to submit to us your very best work. One of the interesting things is that people who are submitting are making decisions on their own. They’re saying, “This was our most important story. This is the best work that we did.” Now it may not receive a Peabody, but to get them to make the effort is one of our goals. I like to say that we set the standards for the industry. That’s for entertainment, news—national and local, and international as well. We give awards to groups outside the U.S. My goal is to have us set a bar that’s very high, but one that people shoot for.
TVWeek: Do you think the industry views the Peabody as one of its highest awards?
Mr. Newcomb: Oh, absolutely. I’ve had a number of people say to me, “I’ve got several Emmys, but only one Peabody, and that’s the one that means the most to me.” One of the local station’s reporters last year had already received a fax from us that they were going to receive the Peabody, and I called to chat with him, and the guy said, “You made my day and probably my career.” I think that’s it. It can be a career builder for people. It can be something that sets a station apart in a local community.
TVWeek: Has the mission of the Peabody Awards always been to honor excellence?
Mr. Newcomb: Yes. The search for excellence was there right at the very beginning.
It began because the National Association of Broadcasters wanted to have an award for radio. They wanted to get someone to do that. One version is that they went to the Pulitzer Prize committee and they were not interested in doing a radio award. So they set up a committee, and the chairman was a man named Lambdin Kay. He was the general manager of WSB in Atlanta, and he said, why don’t we go to the dean of the journalism school at the University of Georgia and talk to him about how this award can be set up. They put it together and in 1939 and 1940 they pushed it through the Board of Regents at the University, and the first awards were given in 1941 for radio. The first television awards were given in 1948. Some of the early letters that we have in our archives say, “We think this can show why radio is a fundamental part of contemporary life and it’s important to the culture.”
TVWeek: Have the Peabodys always honored both news and entertainment?
Mr. Newcomb: Yes, it was always all-encompassing. The early radio awards went to shows like “The Firestone Theater,” classical music. Back then they used the term “radio dramas” more than entertainment. One of the first television awards was for “Howdy Doody,” so we’ve always included children’s programming.
The entertainment awards for the first few years tended toward the more serious. They were a little cautious about sitcoms and such, but by the ’60s, that was happening as well.
The Peabodys have followed the development of electronic media. We’re now looking very cautiously—we’ve given three awards to Web-based material.
TVWeek: Are the Peabodys expanding into recognizing multiplatform programming?
Mr. Newcomb: So far our awards have been to Web sites. We’ve not done webisodes or podcasts thus far because they haven’t been submitted to us yet. We’ve given three awards to free-standing Web sites. One was to a site that teaches people how to produce radio. We gave an award last year to a Washington Post Web site for an incredibly deep Web production called “Being a Black Man.” It started as a print version—12 or 13 very long print pieces—then they decided to turn it over to the Web and it got more and more rich, with interviews and so on. The third one went to Britain’s Channel 4 for a Web site called FourDocs, which takes specifically produced documentaries that are four minutes in length. But they also have an archive that teaches people how to do documentaries. They have interviews with documentary filmmakers on the Web site.
TVWeek: What stood out among the news and documentary winners this year?
Mr. Newcomb: HBO’s “The Day the Levees Broke,” in part because of the gravitas of the whole piece; Spike Lee went farther than the news groups had done. He went to local individuals. It was a very, very thoughtful piece and we saw footage in there that we had not seen during the actual hurricane events. We gave an award to the late Ed Bradley’s “60 Minutes” piece on the Duke rape case. It was really profound, and it was a very moving moment when his producer came up to receive that at the ceremony last June. One of the local winners was for a station where Sikorsky [helicopters] is one of the major employers. They were filing reports where the helicopters were failing in Iraq and they pursued that story for two years. We’re always finding things like that, but it’s not always something sensational.
We’re looking for things that are important in communities. Last year a station received one for a reporter who found medical records in a dumpster behind local pharmacies. Then he found the same thing in Dallas, and he found the same thing in Chicago. He was traveling all over the country, taking great enterprise.
TVWeek: Are you ever accused of playing favorites when you honor the same network or show or station with more than one Peabody?
Mr. Newcomb: No, not at all. There are relatively few of those. “The West Wing” won in two years; “The Sopranos” did, too. It’s actually unusual for that to happen, but we always say, “Take a look at it. See how good it is. See how important it was.” We’ve never had to apologize for any award that we’ve made.
TVWeek: Who actually receives the Peabody Award?
Mr. Newcomb: The award goes to the producer. We don’t really give it to the performer or the writers. We occasionally give a special Peabody Award to somebody who has made a major contribution, and those were somewhat more common in the early days, when there was less recorded material for the board to consider. We’ve given an award recently to Grant Tinker, and we gave one to Bill Moyers. Those we call a personal Peabody Award. Otherwise it’s the show, it’s the story, it’s the program that gets the award.
TVWeek: In the future, do you see the Peabodys expanding to honor Internet programs, webisodes and the like?
Mr. Newcomb: We’re very slow to change. We’re not that far away from the 1941-42 awards. The process won’t change, I know that much. Our Web site shows who has won, but you cannot find a way to get copies. We do not hold any rights to it. It is important to note that from the very beginning, in the wisdom of the people who were doing this, they kept as many entries as possible, not just the winners, but in our library at the University of Georgia we have probably 75% of all of the entries that we have gotten. We have over 50,000 titles of radio and television dating back into the 1940s. That archive is probably second only to UCLA’s Archive of Film & Television. We have everything in there from local stations to individual, independent projects to big network things. It’s there for research because we don’t own the rights. Lots of documentary filmmakers come to our library to do their research. People can come to the library and use the material there. It’s one of the very rarest archives in the country. We have the history of electronic media from the second half of the 20th century and we certainly have the social history and cultural history.
TVWeek: How is all this funded?
Mr. Newcomb: We do not have a Peabody endowment. We operate on our entry fees, which is why we do charge people to enter. We have never taken a dime from the industry as far as supporting the awards process. There’s a small fund that was set up by HBO for people who cannot afford the entry fee.